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Handbook for Welcome to York Breaks – Guidance for Potential Guest Organisers and Volunteers


  • Asylum Seekers

  • Refugees

  • About York City of Sanctuary

  • Welcome to York Programme

  • Who can come on a Welcome to York Programme?

  • Support for Volunteers and Guides

  • Some Issues to Consider/Rules and Guidelines for Volunteers

  • Disclaimer

  • Work in Progress

Asylum Seekers

  • An asylum seeker or refugee is a person who has fled their home country due to persecution or well-founded fear of persecution, for the reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. Currently, the most visible example is the millions of Syrian refugees and asylum seekers who have fled civil war over recent years. Many asylum seekers endure months of dangerous sea and land crossings to get to countries who are signed up to the UN convention, requiring them to give protection to genuine asylum seekers.
  • The UK has a long history of giving sanctuary to people fleeing persecution and our system is meant to ensure that these people are treated with humanity and fairness.
  • Once an application has been made, awaiting an interview and a decision can take months or years. During this time, the Home Office provides shared accommodation with other asylum seekers. Rent, council tax, electric, gas, and water are all paid for by the Home Office. Asylum seekers are given about £5 per day for food, toiletries, clothes, over-the-counter medications, and transport. They are not allowed to work.
  • Asylum seekers are “dispersed” in areas with the infrastructure to support them (not too far from Home Office offices). These tend to be cities. York is not a Dispersal Area, but many towns in Yorkshire and the Humber are.
  • Some asylum seekers may never have lived in a city before. Some may not be able to communicate with the people from other countries with whom they live. Some may only have friends who are asylum seekers.


  • As well as providing aid to refugees camps on Syria’s borders, the UK has pledged to resettle 20,000 Syrians by 2020 through the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme. In York we have been allocated, by the Home Office, a number of Syrian refugees on this scheme who have settled into private housing across the city. Having refugee status means they are entitled to work in the UK. Most of them are developing their own English language skills, and supporting their children through the education system to help them develop their learning and prepare for opportunities for future employment.
  • In York we also have refugees from other countries where people have had to leave due to circumstances such as war, violence, political and religious beliefs, etc.

About York City of Sanctuary

  • York City of Sanctuary works in several ways. As well as seeking to promote an environment of understanding and compassion within the city, we visit organisations and places of education to give talks and lead discussions. We also work with individual refugees or asylum seekers who for whatever reason find themselves in York and are unable to return to their countries of origin. As well as assisting refugees who come to York as part of government schemes, York City of Sanctuary co-ordinates visits to the city by refugees from the environs with the help of an active team of volunteers.

Welcome to York Programme

  • The Welcome to York Programme invites refugees and asylum seekers from Yorkshire and the Humber region to visit the city of York on a day trip. Our York-based volunteers, including some York-based refugees, act as guides and hosts for the day. Many attractions in the City of York are free, or are offering free entry to refugees and asylum seekers who visit the city on this programme. Our guests will be able to see a number of well-known (and less well-known places) on their visit, such as York Minster, National Railway Museum, York Art Gallery, York Castle Museum, as well as the Museum Gardens, the windows of Betty’s Tea Rooms, the numerous Harry Potter shops in the Shambles, as well as seasonal events such as St Nicholas Christmas Fair, the York Food Festival, the York Ice Trail and the annual Viking Festival.
  • Offering a visit to York for a day to asylum seekers and refugees from other cities is a gift to those who wish to use them. It means they can come to our city, spend time with English-speaking people (a great opportunity to practise English, if they wish), learn about British culture, and get warm attention from someone / people who are not in a similar situation to theirs.
  • Many Welcome to York Volunteers have found their experience rewarding and insightful.
    These notes aim to highlight some of the most important issues when considering volunteering. Some volunteers have hosted already or have lived amongst people from other cultures and may find much that is written here very familiar.
  • We are able to make a significant contribution to costs for each visit, which may be used for transport to York, lunch, teas etc.

Who can come on the Welcome to York Programme?

Any group of refugees/asylum seekers from Yorkshire and the Humber region can come on a Welcome to York Programme. We run 6 of these a year, on Saturdays, and have had guests from Bradford, Leeds, Hull, Doncaster, Ripon, Huddersfield and Middlesbrough. Some groups consist of young people, and we try to have young people from York act as volunteer guides for them, as well as arranging some sports activities on the day.

Support for Volunteer Hosts/Guides

  • Agreeing to guide a group of asylum seekers or refugees can be exciting and daunting – at the same time. We aim to give you as much support as possible. This includes:
    • This handbook
    • A Q&A session in person or on the phone with a member of the Welcome to York Team
    • The chance to attend events just for volunteers, to share experiences and
      concerns and gain ideas on how to be better volunteers

Some Issues to Consider and Rules/Guidelines for Volunteers


  • Whilst many volunteers will have had considerable experience of relating to people from other cultures, this does not necessarily fully prepare you for hosting a group of asylum seekers/refugees. Please note that these are huge generalisations and may bear no relevance to the people hosted by you. It is also worth noting that there are often great variations within cultures, so it is unwise to expect two guests from the same country to hold identical beliefs and practices. Often, it is personality or temperament, rather than culture, that determines behaviour. If in doubt, ask your Welcome to York Team Member.


  • In some cultures there is more role-division than we may be used to. Handshaking (and any other close physical contact) with someone of the opposite sex may cause offence, or allow for possible misinterpretation. Conversely, it is quite common in some cultures for men to hold hands in public. Concepts of appropriate personal space differ widely from culture to culture.


  • Volunteers need to be sensitive to other cultures’ dress. We ask volunteers to dress modestly – no shorts, bare mid-riffs etc.

Please and Thank You

  • Some languages have no equivalent word for ‘please’. ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’ may be more commonly expressed through actions and attitudes than words.

Yes and No

  • Non-western languages are often much more indirect. A person may answer ‘Yes’ out of respect and the wish not to offend, without any intention of actually taking up the offer.


  • Some countries have no culture of volunteering and so there may be a misunderstanding (which the we will endeavour to dispel from the outset) that hosts are paid – perhaps funded by the Home Office. It may be difficult for some to understand volunteers’ motives for guiding or volunteering and suspect a hidden agenda.


  • Some cultures would consider household pets, in particular dogs, as unclean. We ask that volunteers do not bring pets with them on a Welcome to York day.

Times (and space) for prayer

  • These are more rigidly adhered to in Islam, for example. Your guests may ask you for a space to undertake prayer during the day.


  • Most will be aware of the different food laws within each religion. Muslims (and Jews) will not eat pork products, most Hindus are vegetarian, and practising Muslims eat Halal meat. Likewise, most practising Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs will not be happy to eat food cooked in pots used for beef or pork. When we are providing food we take these practices into consideration – we may provide only vegetarian food, or food containing meat which is Halal. The use of cutlery is an eccentric western custom to some; volunteers should be prepared for guests to eat with their hands – and sitting on the floor. We do not, as a rule, have Welcome to York breaks during Ramadan, when no food or drink is taken between dawn and dusk.


  • Some other cultures attach much less importance to punctuality than we do in the West. Being late for an appointment may not infer disrespect, simply that something perceived as of greater importance (perhaps helping a friend) has intervened. We ask volunteers to take this into account when planning their tour – it is still vital that our guests get back to their bus stop on time!


  • While it is likely that our guests take lots of selfies and photos of each other, and possibly of the volunteers, we ask that our volunteers do not take photos of our guests for their own purposes (it’s fine to use a guest’s phone to take a picture of them/their group at their request). Some of our guests may be or feel they are in danger due to issues of things such as domestic violence, reprisals etc and it may endanger them for photos showing their likenesses to be posted on social media, or shown to others not connected to them.

Talking about personal faith

  • Whilst we ask that volunteers do not seek to use their role as a means to try to convert others to their own particular faith, we recognise that, in many other cultures, it is much more acceptable to discuss openly spiritual issues and religious practice. We do not seek to discourage this, and a visit to York Minster is an integral part of many visits. It will often be helpful also to discuss British culture and traditions with guests who are hoping to be able to settle in the UK

Role Separation

  • The principal aim of Welcome to York Breaks is to provide a day out for asylum seekers and refugees. There is no expectation that volunteers become involved in their guests’ cases, and we ask that you do not get involved with this aspect of our guests’ lives. This will often not be easy, particularly when guests appear to have no other support and are in crisis. City of Sanctuary (nationally and locally to where the guests live) has details of the other projects and services that are able to provide legal advice and other support. Volunteers that are experiencing difficulties here should discuss this with their Welcome to York Team Member.

Mental Health

  • Most asylum seekers will have experienced extreme trauma both before arriving in Britain, as well as during the application and appeal processes. It is not surprising, therefore, that many develop mental ill-health. Most often, this will present as a depressive illness, but some may also develop psychoses or other disorders. Our referral criteria for guests clearly state that we are unable to accept referrals for those with serious mental ill-health issues.

Talking about the Past

  • Unless guests volunteer the information, it is important that volunteers do not ask them to talk about their personal history, and in particular the circumstances that led them to leave their home country. Great sensitivity is needed over issues that may be very painful for the guest and which may remain unresolved.

Personal Names

  • Whilst many find names from other cultures confusing, it is a token of respect and friendship to quickly learn to properly pronounce someone’s name, and to use their name of choice.

Use of telephone

  • Most guests will have their own mobile, and we recommend that you do not lend them yours, unless in an emergency.

Use of alcohol

  • Sensitivity may be required with some guests. Please do not offer to buy alcoholic drinks for our guests

Giving/lending money

  • We recommend that hosts do not lend or give guests money. It may be very difficult for guests to repay, and wrong expectations may be established. All essentials for the day in York (such as a mid-day meal, transport to and from York) will be covered by the Welcome to York Programme, or the guest’s home city organisation. Feel free to buy your guests a soft drink or beverage, but you certainly aren’t expected to do so.

Needing a GP

  • Asylum seekers and refugees are entitled to access primary health care, including seeing a doctor, and A&E. They have a card that they may use for this purpose. If such a need arises on a Welcome to York Day, please let your Welcome to York Team Member know.


  • Please note that, whilst York City of Sanctuary, in partnership with others in the network, makes every effort to vet guests prior to their coming on a Welcome to York Programme, and to support hosts and guests during visits, the visit is, in effect, a private arrangement between the host and visitor and neither York City of Sanctuary nor the guests’ host organisation can accept any liability.

Work in Progress

  • This is a working document and York City of Sanctuary (YCOS) will be very grateful for any comments / suggested amendments or additions.
  • YCOS is very grateful to East Lindsay Area of Sanctuary for their handbook for hosts, from which much of their insight and experience has been included here. We are also grateful to Refugee Action for their definition of a refugee.